Susan Farmer, former RI Secretary of State, has died

Susan Farmer, the first woman elected to statewide office in Rhode Island and a champion of efforts to end gender inequality in politics, has died following a long battle with cancer. She was 71.

Farmer, a Republican, served two terms as Secretary of State after winning the office in 1982. She later led Rhode Island PBS for nearly two decades and stayed politically involved until her death, serving on the state's Board of Elections and urging more women to run for office.

Farmer died overnight Sunday, her daughter Heidi Farmer Piccerelli told The Associated Press. Farmer had been diagnosed with stomach cancer more than a decade ago.

"Susan Farmer was just in a class of her own," said friend Marcia Cone, the executive director of the Women's Fund of Rhode Island, a group that works to fight gender inequality. Farmer joined the Fund's board this year. "She made such a difference. She was optimistic, she had grace, a great sense of humor and just a zest for life."

Two years ago Farmer told The Associated Press that she looked forward to the day when it's no longer considered noteworthy for a woman to run for elected office. She recalled, with a smile, that it made a certain kind of sense that the secretary of state's office would be the first one held by a woman in Rhode Island.

"There was something about that word 'secretary' that made people more comfortable with the idea of a woman," she recalled with a laugh. "I guess they thought it was really a secretarial job."

Despite gains, women are still underrepresented in the state's General Assembly and on state boards and commissions, and no woman has been elected governor or U.S. Senator from the state. Rhode Island currently has two female statewide office holders: Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Lt. Gov. Elizabeth Roberts.

"We need to make sure we keep the pressure on our colleagues and friends to step up," Farmer said last year. "... It's not an easy thing to put yourself out there."

Gov. Lincoln Chafee vowed in the 2010 election to increase the number of women appointed to high-level administrative posts and boards and commissions. In a statement following her death, Chafee said Farmer was "persistent" in ensuring he lived up to his pledge. "We have lost an extraordinary woman," Chafee said.

On Monday Farmer was hailed as a trailblazer by current Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, Raimondo, Roberts and many other state leaders. Roberts said Farmer's impact on her was a personal one.

"She has made a lasting impression on me and so many of my peers," Roberts wrote. "Women from all walks in this state will be forever indebted to Susan Farmer."

She is survived by her husband, Providence attorney Malcolm Farmer.